Petra Lost and Found

By David Cogswell

The Lost City of Petra is only one of many reasons to visit Jordan, but it alone is enough to justify the trip. After seeing Petra, everything else is just gravy. In the end, there may be any number of things that actually leave a more powerful impression on any American visitor to Jordan than Petra, such as the desert at Wadi Rum, the Red Sea or the Dead Sea, the relics of ancient Christianity or just the Jordanian people themselves, but nothing will draw as many people to Jordan as Petra. It used to be nicknamed ďThe Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World,Ē but now itís officially one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, which makes it an even stronger attraction to millions of people from around the world. Petra is Jordanís showcase attraction, the main driver of its national tourism industry.

And deservedly so. Petra is one of the most confounding spectacles in the world, as well as one of the greatest testaments to the ability of human beings to create majestic and sublime beauty that endures for centuries. Confounding because strangely enough, the people who created the marvel that is Petra, apparently just walked away from it.

Petra is an abandoned ancient city hidden within red sandstone mountains, accessible only via a long, narrow, labyrinthian passageway between giant limestone cliffs. At the end of the passageway, one finds oneself facing a colossal 140-foot high temple in the Graeco-Roman style. Itís an immaculately detailed replica of a Classic Greek temple with massive columns in front supporting a horizontal slab, or entablature, as typified by the Parthenon in Athens. But Petra is a later style than the Parthenon, the Corinthian style, with longer, sleeker columns, crowned with ornate carvings of acanthus leaves. Petraís many striking architectural monuments combine Greek, Roman, Nebutean and Pharaonic elments.

To Americans, the style is as familiar as their own backyards, because the iconic government buildings of Washington D.C. were built in a Greek revival style. The Senate and the House of Representative wings of the U.S. Capitol, for example, underneath the big round dome, are replicas of Corinthian style temples, acanthus leaves and all.

The Greek Revival dominated American architecture during the first half of the 19th century, and became the first national style of architecture in the U.S. But the American buildings actually more like the Greek temples than those of Petra, because they too were built by mounting columns and placing enormous stone entablatures at the top for roofs. But the Graeco-Roman temple facades of Petra were carved into the faces of already existing vertical cliffs of sandstone.

One does not have to know the history to be riveted by the sight of Petra. What can be seen to the uninformed naked eye in Petra is mind-blowing in itself, and enough to ignite fireworks of speculation in the imagination. And in the end imagination is mostly what we have to go on about the origins of the strange relics. Relatively little has come down to us about what actually went on there. In fact, we in the modern world donít really know what Petra is.

It is believed to have been by the Nebutean people, a tribe from Southern Arabia, who were advanced in their development of water engineering and architecture. A flashflood through the canyons in the 1960s that killed 12 French tourists accidentally revealed clay water pipes that were previously unknown, part of a very sophisticated plumbing system.

The Nebuteans first appear in our historical record in 312 BC. But though the city is seven-square miles in area, and contains monumental architecture, archeologists donít even believe the Nebuteans lived in Petra. The first temple that can be seen when one emerges from the passage way is called The Treasury, but it is believed to have been a tomb. Some have speculated that the wealthy lived there, but the more favored theory is that it was a place for rituals. And though it was not far from the trade routes, it was probably not a place where the caravans actually entered. The Romans did not conquer it, instead the Nebuteans made a deal with them, but it did not last as a living settlement for 300 years. It appears that after an earthquake hit the area, the Nebuteans abandoned it.

Petra was unknown to the west for over a thousand years and was rediscovered by a Swiss writer named Johann Burckhardt in 1812. Some Bedouins lived there sporadically until 1980. In 1985 it became a World Heritage site. For more information, contact the Jordan Tourism Board, e-mail or visit -- David Cogswell

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